by Peggy Burch
Critics have lavished exuberant praise on the work of Memphis-reared fiction writer Steve Stern. Still, his book sales have always been modest.
An editor at The New York Times described the Stern phenomenon in 2005, under the headline “He’s a Literary Darling Looking for Dear Readers.” Stern’s spectacular novel “The Angel of Forgetfulness” had just been released when Peter Edidin wrote: “He has received critical praise in the places that matter, won his share of prizes and is devoted to his work. … But he remains largely unknown to readers at a time when even the most gifted writer, if he does not sell well, may have difficulty finding a publisher for his next book.”
The highly regarded but under-appreciated literary hero returns to his hometown this week for an appearance at Burke’s Book Store from 5:30 to 7 p.m. July 13. He’ll read from and sign his latest book, “The Frozen Rabbi” (Algonquin, $24.95).
The San Francisco Chronicle began its review of “Frozen Rabbi” this way: “It has become something of a literary tradition, when reviewing a new book by Steve Stern, to mention that he is not as popular as he ought to be. Back in 1987 Gordon Lish, the renowned editor and literary kingmaker, was already calling Stern ‘far and away the greatest of our unrecognized writers.'”
Unfortunately, Stern said by phone from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he teaches creative writing at Skidmore College, “unrecognized writer” still sort of describes his situation, though he has received O. Henry Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the National Jewish Book Award along the way.
He compares himself to the Kevin Costner character in the movie “Bull Durham,” a great player pitcher unaccountably stuck for eternity in the minor leagues.
“I get really, really tired of the reviews that start ‘much neglected, possibly this book will bring him the attention…’
“It’s never gonna happen. My expectations have always been very minimal; I’m just pleased to be acknowledged.”
His cheerful pessimism bleeds into all areas of his life. He recently had a hip replacement, about which he said: “I’ve gone from a walker to crutches to a cane to Walter Brennan in three weeks.”
He shares homes in upstate New York and Brooklyn with his “spousal equivalent,” the comic artist Sabrina Jones. The relationship has what he calls “a hitch,” one that some might consider a blessing. Jones’s family is French, and she inherited a house in the countryside there. “I have such a low beauty threshold,” Stern says of his trouble adapting to visiting France.
Though he moved to Saratoga Springs in 1987, his stories still have Memphis settings. Stern himself grew up near East High, but he found his writerly bearings in The Pinch — the neighborhood on North Main Street that formed an East European Jewish ghetto in the late 19th century — which he discovered while he was working at the Center for Southern Folklore in the early 1980s. “I did an endless series of interviews with old survivors of the North Main Street neighborhoods, and it began to reassemble itself in my mind.”
He agonized in advance about his homecoming this week: “I don’t handle these things well. I see people I haven’t seen in years. It’s overwhelming. I like to think most of them have forgotten me.”
From The Shelf Life
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